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Should we shoot woodcock?

As the shooting of woodcock has become intensely politicised, Matt Cross cuts through the nonsense

There is a road not far from here which we call “the Nick road”. We call it that because it crosses a high hill pass called Nick of the Balloch. To see its best natural spectacle you have to drive it in the dark in mid-November. If a north-easterly wind and full moon coincide, the woodcock gather so thickly along the sides of the road that at times it can be like driving in a gentle fall of snow; bird after bird twisting away, flake-like in the headlights.

When I see the birds on the Nick road, I know that on the next shoot day when I work the dog down the outside of a certain wooded glen she will tumble at least one from the gorse, and that the drive above the big house will be thick with them. 

Woodcock have become an intensely politicised bird. They are currently the subject of a campaign to have their shooting season shortened and, like the campaign for licensing of grouse moors, there are strong suspicions the real aim is a ban. An anti-shooting campaign naturally needs a video fronted by Chris Packham, and Chris has obliged alongside a woodcock called Wanda.

In his video, Chris describes woodcock as “an endangered red-listed wader”. This is essentially a piece of misinformation intended to confuse the conservation issues around woodcock, but unpacking it can help us understand what is going on with woodcock.


Misleading terminology

‘Red listed’ is a much-loved phrase of conservation campaigners. The red list sounds very bad. If you don’t know about these things, it sounds as if there would be a green list for creatures that are doing great, an orange one for creatures that are a bit iffy and a red one kept for those which are in serious trouble. This is not the case. 

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) red list includes a vast range of animals, plants and fungi. It covers everything from incredibly common species to the incredibly rare. Species on the red list are classed somewhere between least concern and extinct. Endangered is one of the categories on the IUCN red list, and a species is endangered if it is “facing a very high risk of extinction in the wild”. 

A woodcock (left) alongside the smaller jack snipe — legal to shoot in Northern Ireland

Woodcock are not classed as endangered — they are actually in the lowest of all the categories in ‘least concern’, the same category as purple moor-grass, common starlings and Atlantic mackerel. Globally, woodcock numbers are stable and there are no serious threats to them. 

But like all the best bits of misinformation, saying woodcock are an “endangered red-listed wader” is a mixture of truth and invention. As well as the IUCN red list, there is another red list. This is the UK red list or, to be more precise, the birds categorised as ‘red’ in the publication Birds of Conservation Concern. This list does not use the term endangered at all; it simply colour codes all of the UK’s breeding birds. 

Woodcock are on this list, and being on this list is bad news. Woodcock are on the UK red list because their breeding range and numbers in the UK have shrunk significantly. A 2015 publication by experts from the GWCT and the British Trust for Ornithology estimated that in 2013 there were 55,241 breeding male woodcock in the UK, a reduction of more than a quarter since 2003. The scientists concluded: “The woodcock’s population size and breeding range appear to be declining severely.”

Why that is happening is complex and not completely clear. Climate change may have a role. Increased deer numbers certainly aren’t helping. As the deer browse out the understory the soil dries up, holding fewer worms, and nest sites are lost. Shooting may also be applying a pressure on the population, but it does not seem to causing the decline. 

Fault should not be found with those who shoot a modest number of woodcock to eat

So how can both these things be true and what does it all mean for the woodcock shooter? The key thing is that the UK has two separate woodcock populations; the small and declining breeding population of around 130,000 adult birds, and a huge wintering population of up to 1.5 million birds. 

The UK’s wintering woodcock breed in an area that covers eastern Russia, the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, up into Finland across Sweden and to the west coast of Norway. As a rough rule, Baltic and Russian breeding woodcock tend to winter in England and Wales, while Finnish and Scandinavian woodcock winter in Scotland and Ireland. 

In 2019, Swedish scientists looked at the populations of a range of wading birds across Fennoscandia. They found that populations of woodcock were stable for the period 2006 to 2018. The shooting of woodcock in their breeding countries and in the UK does not seem to be reducing the population. 

A woodcock makes it way in front of the lines of guns on the marsh

The Russian population of woodcock is more difficult to assess; woodcock are difficult birds to count, and they are what birdwatchers call ‘cryptic’. In addition, large areas of Russia are heavily forested and inaccessible. 

Sergey Fokin, from conservation charity BirdsRussia, explains how the organisation undertakes a complex programme of surveying. He says: “Every year on the last Saturday of May, we organise the counting of woodcock at the evening roding. About 3,000 volunteers, including ornithologists, hunters, gamekeepers and game managers, participate in this event. They fill in counting cards that we use to estimate relative numbers of roding woodcocks. Every year the data from around 2,000 observation points from 38 regions of woodcock nesting areas is processed.” 

Their conclusion is that, like the Fennoscandian birds, woodcock numbers in Russia are stable. 

Woodcock should not be shot before 1 December — and it is best not to shoot them at all if there are breeding birds in the area


Differentiating woodcock

The picture is quite clear: breeding woodcock are declining in the UK, and their decline is rapid and serious. Shooting is not the cause of this decline, but it may be a contributor. The numbers of wintering woodcock are stable despite decades of relatively high shooting pressure. 

The conclusion here is quite obvious; a small-scale sustainable harvest of wintering woodcock can be fine. Shooting breeding woodcock is not OK, and if anyone is still doing
it, they must stop immediately. 

Woodcock scurrying along the farm track at night are caught in the truck’s headlights

The challenge is how you know which is which. Woodcock are not colour-coded. The breeding birds don’t fly differently or make a different noise. The answer, really, is common sense. Wintering woodcock arrive in October and November. Any woodcock seen in September will almost certainly be breeding birds. In October they may be migrants or may be breeding birds. By November the majority will be migrants and by December migrants will outnumber breeding birds by 10 or 15 to one.

So, follow the GWCT’s long-established advice and do not shoot woodcock before 1 December. I would suggest going one step further — if you have breeding woodcock in your area, maybe you should not shoot any woodcock at all. Waiting until December may reduce the chances of shooting a resident bird, but you can never eliminate that risk.

Here, sadly, we have no breeding woodcock, but we have abundant migrants. Those migrants come from large stable populations that have not declined despite being shot for decades. I struggle to find fault with someone who shoots a modest number to eat.